Sunday, November 11, 2012
Jesus, the Scribes and the widow
The different way of accounting in the Kingdom of God
Mark 12: 38-44
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
The Gospel text of this Sunday presents us with two opposing but connected facts: on the one hand we have Jesus criticizing the Scribes who used religion to exploit poor widows, and, on the other hand, we have the example of the poor widow who gave to the Temple even what she had to live on. These facts are relevant even today!
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Mark 12:38-40: Jesus criticizes the exploitation of the Scribes
Mark 12:41-42: Jesus watches people who place their alms in the treasury of the Temple
Mark 12:43-44: Jesus reveals the value of the poor widow’s action
38 In his teaching he said, 'Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted respectfully in the market squares, 39 to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; 40 these are the men who devour the property of widows and for show offer long prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.'
41 He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the treasury, and many of the rich put in a great deal. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, 'In truth I tell you, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; 44 for they have all put in money they could spare, but she in her poverty has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.'
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What pleased or struck you most in this text? Why?
b) What does Jesus criticize and what does he praise in the doctors of the Law?
c) What social and religious imbalances of that period do we find in the text?
d) How is it that the two coins of the widow are of more value than the great amount put in by the rich? Look carefully at the text and see what follows: “Why does Jesus praise the poor widow?”
e) What message does this text convey to us today?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) Yesterday’s and today’s context:
● The context in Jesus’ time.
Mark’s text 12:38-44 recounts the last part of Jesus’ activities in Jerusalem (Mk 11:1 to 12:44). Those were very intense days, full of conflicts: the driving out of the sellers in the Temple (Mk 11:12-26), and many discussions with the authorities: (Mk 11:27 to 12:12), with the Pharisees, with the Herodians and the Sadducees (Mk 12:13-27) and with the doctors of the Law (Mk 12:28-37). This Sunday’s text (Mk 12:38-44) reports a final word of criticism by Jesus concerning the bad behaviour of the doctors of the Law (Mk 12:38-40) and a word of praise for the good behaviour of the widow. Almost at the end of his activities in Jerusalem, Jesus sits in front of the treasury where people were putting their alms for the Temple. Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to the action of a poor widow and teaches them the value of sharing (Mk 12:41-44).
● The context in Mark’s time.
During the first forty years of the Church’s history, from the 30’s to the 70’s, the Christian communities, for the most part, were made up of poor people (1Cor 1:26). Later some rich people or those who had various problems joined them. The social tensions that existed in the Roman Empire, began to be felt also in the life of the communities. For instance, divisions came to the fore when the communities came together to celebrate the supper (1Cor 11:20-22), or when they met together (James 2:1-4). Thus, the teaching concerning the action of the widow was very real for them. It was like looking into a mirror, because Jesus compares the behaviour of the rich with that of the poor.
● Today’s context.
Jesus praises the poor widow because she could share more than the rich people did. Many poor today do the same. People say: The poor never allow another poor person to die of hunger. But sometimes even this is not true. Donna Cícera, a poor lady who went from the country to the periphery of a great city used to say: “In the country, I was very poor, but I always had something to share with another poor person who knocked on my door. Now that I am in the city, when I see a poor person who knocks on my door, I hide for shame because I have nothing to share!” Thus we see on the one hand rich people who have everything, and on the other poor people who have almost nothing to share, and yet share the little they have.
b) A commentary on the text:
Mark 12:38-40: Jesus criticizes the doctors of the Law.
Jesus draws his disciples’ attention to the hypocritical and exploiting behaviour of some doctors of the Law. “Doctors” or Scribes were those who taught people the Law of God. But they taught it only by word, because their lives witnessed to the opposite. They liked going about the squares wearing long tunics, accepting the greetings of people, taking first places in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. In other words, they were people who wished to appear important. They used their knowledge and their profession as a means for climbing the social ladder and of enriching themselves, and not for serving. They liked to visit widows and recite long prayers in exchange for money! Jesus ends by saying: “The more severe will be the sentence they receive!”
Mark 12:41-42: The almsgiving of the widow.
Jesus and the disciples were seated in front of the treasury of the Temple and watched people placing their alms in the treasury. The poor gave a few cents, the rich put in bills of great value. The treasury became full. All gave something for the upkeep of the cult, to support the priests and for the maintenance of the Temple. Some of the money was used to help the poor, since in those days there was no social security. The poor depended on public charity. The most needy among the poor were the orphans and widows. They had nothing. They completely depended on the charity of others. But, even though they had nothing, they made an effort to share with others the little they had. Thus, a very poor widow places her alms in the treasury, just a few cents!
Mark 12:43-44: Jesus shows us where to find God’s will.
What is of greater value: the few cents of the widow or the thousand coins of the rich? For the disciples, the thousand coins of the rich were far more useful to perform acts of charity than the widow’s few cents. They thought that peoples’ problems could be solved by means of a lot of money. On the occasion of the multiplication of the loaves, they said to Jesus: “Are we to go and spend two hundred denarii on bread for them to eat?” (Mk 6:37) Indeed, for those who think this way, the two cents of the widow are of no use. But Jesus says: “This poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury”. Jesus has different criteria. In calling the attention of the disciples to the action of the widow, he teaches them and us where we must look for the manifestation of God’s will, that is, in sharing. If today we shared the goods that God has placed in the universe for the whole of humanity, there would be neither poverty nor hunger. There would be enough for all and there would be some left over for others.
c) Further information: Almsgiving, sharing, wealth
The practice of almsgiving was very important for the Jews. It was considered a “good work” (Mt 6:1-4), because the law of the Old Testament said: “There will never cease to be poor people in the country, and that is why I am giving you this command: Always be open handed with your brother, and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor” (Dt 15:11). Alms placed in the treasury, whether for the cult or for the maintenance of the Temple or for those in need, orphans and widows, were considered an act pleasing to God. Almsgiving was a way of sharing with others, a way of recognizing that all goods and gifts belong to God and that we are but administrators of these gifts, so that there may be an abundance in this life for all.
It was from the book of Exodus that the people of Israel learnt the importance of almsgiving, of sharing. The forty years’ journey in the desert was necessary to overcome the desire for accumulation that came from the Pharaoh of Egypt and that was well implanted in the minds of the people. It is easy to leave Pharaoh’s country. It is difficult to free oneself of Pharaoh’s mentality. The ideology of the great is false and deceiving. It was necessary to experience hunger in the desert so as to learn that what is necessary for life is for all. This is what the Manna teaches: “No one who had collected more had too much, no one who had collected less had too little” (Ex 16:18).
But the tendency to accumulate was there all the time and was very strong. And it constantly reappears in the human heart. It is precisely because of this tendency to accumulate that the great empires in the history of humanity were formed. The desire to possess and to accumulate is at the very heart of the ideology of these human empires or kingdoms. Jesus points to the conversion required to enter the Kingdom of God. He says to the rich young man: “Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor” (Mk 10:21). This same requirement is echoed in the other Gospels: “Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it and no moth destroy it” (Lk 12:33-34; Mt 6:9-20). Then Jesus adds the reason for this demand: “For wherever your treasure is, that is where your heart will be too”.
The practice of sharing, of almsgiving and of solidarity is one of the marks of the Spirit of Jesus, given to us on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), and that he wishes to make present in the communities. The result of the outpouring of the Spirit is precisely this: “None of the members was ever in want, as all those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from the sale of them, to present it to the apostles” (Acts 4:34-35ª; 2:44-45). These alms received by the apostles were not accumulated but were rather “then distributed to any who might be in need” (Acts 4:35b; 2:45).
On the one hand, the coming of rich people into the communities made it possible to expand Christianity, because these offered better conditions to the missionary movement. However, on the other hand, the accumulation of goods blocked the movement of solidarity and of sharing inspired by the force of the Spirit of Pentecost. James wishes to help such people to understand that they had gone the wrong way: “Well now you rich! Lament, weep for the miseries that are coming to you. Your wealth is rotting, your clothes are all moth-eaten.” (Jm 5:1-3). We all need to become students of that poor widow who shared what she had to live on, so as to learn the way to the Kingdom (Mk 12:41-44).
6. Praying a Psalm 62 (61)
God is strength and love
In God alone there is rest for my soul,
from him comes my safety;
he alone is my rock, my safety,
my stronghold so that I stand unshaken.
How much longer will you set on a victim,
all together, intent on murder,
like a rampart already leaning over,
a wall already damaged?
Trickery is their only plan,
deception their only pleasure,
with lies on their lips they pronounce a blessing,
with a curse in their hearts.
Rest in God alone, my soul!
He is the source of my hope.
He alone is my rock,
my safety, my stronghold,
so that I stand unwavering.
In God is my safety and my glory,
the rock of my strength.
In God is my refuge;
trust in him, you people, at all times.
Pour out your hearts to him,
God is a refuge for us.
Ordinary people are a mere puff of wind,
important people a delusion;
set both on the scales together,
and they are lighter than a puff of wind.
Put no trust in extortion,
no empty hopes in robbery;
however much wealth may multiply,
do not set your heart on it.
Once God has spoken,
twice have I heard this:
Strength belongs to God,
to you, Lord, faithful love;
and you repay everyone as their deeds deserve.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.